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UC San Diego nets $11.3M grant to cut costs, risks of designing cutting edge chips

UC San Diego nets $11.3M grant to cut costs, risks of designing cutting edge chips
Andrew Kahng from UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering will serve as director of the OpenROAD project, which aims to reduce the time and cost of designing cutting edge silicon chips.

The University of California San Diego has been awarded an $11.3 million grant from a government defense agency to develop tools aimed at making it less risky and more affordable to design advanced semiconductors.

The project – led by Jacobs School of Engineering professor Andrew Kahng – will try to automate design techniques to enable leading edge chips layouts that can be generated within 24 hours with no human involvement.

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The goal is to spark innovation by making it easier to design cutting edge chips for production at factories with the most advanced manufacturing technologies -- giving small companies, researchers and Department of Defense access to top-tier, specialized silicon.

“I think it is a chance for the U.S. and North America to retake leadership in systems innovation that we no longer dominate because of the difficultly of actually doing hardware design,” said Kahng.

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The four-year research grant comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The team includes researchers from six universities, along with support from Qualcomm and chip architecture developer ARM Holding.

“There is an incredible delta between what is possible with silicon versus what people are actually able to afford or bring themselves to risk attempting,” said Kahng. “We’re trying to narrow the gap.”

The project is called OpenROAD. It supports DARPA’s Intelligent Design of Electronic Assets (IDEA) program that is part of the larger Electronics Resurgence Initiative, which is expected to spend $1.5 billion over the next five years to push forward electronics innovation in the U.S.

Designing the most advanced integrated circuits today involves large teams of engineers using complex and costly computer-aided tools.

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So fewer companies are attempting to design chips that take advantage of the latest manufacturing technologies, which produce smaller, better performing and power efficient silicon.

“What people can’t design in hardware, they’ll work around that with software, and then Moore’s Law stops,” said Kahng.

Moore’s Law, named after Intel’s Gordon Moore, is a chip industry axiom that states the number of transistors on semiconductors doubles every two years – boosting power and lowering costs.

Moore's Law has helped drive gains in electronics for decades. But Moore’s Law has been ailing recently, as the sheer cost of the equipment required to pile more transistors onto smaller chips has made production expensive.

Kahng’s team will tap machine learning, cloud-based optimization and restricted layout methods as part of its effort, among other things.

Joining Kahng in the project is UC San Diego professor Lawrence Saul, as well as experts from other universities and graduate students. The design tools created by the OpenROAD project will be open-sourced to expand their adoption – similar to the way open source software helped power innovation in applications.

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